The New Middle East; as the Iraq War Helps Bring the American Era to a Close, a New Order Will Begin to Emerge in the Region

Newsweek International, January 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

The New Middle East; as the Iraq War Helps Bring the American Era to a Close, a New Order Will Begin to Emerge in the Region


Byline: Richard N. Haass (Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.)

It is early 2008.

The new U.S. strategy for Iraq, outlined by President George W. Bush in January 2007, in the wake of the Iraq Study Group report, has come and gone with no discernible effect.

With 100,000 soldiers still on the ground, despite congressional calls for major withdrawals, "force protection" is the new catchphrase, given domestic intolerance of American casualties. No one debates any longer whether Iraq is experiencing a civil war; it's in fact part failed state, part civil war and part regional war. Insurgents, militias and terrorists are more active than ever; Iraqi casualties and deaths are higher than ever. Output of oil and electricity remains stuck at or below prewar levels. Making matters worse are the "volunteers" crossing into Iraq from Iran (to assist the Shia majority) and Syria (where Saudis and others are flocking to help the embattled Sunni minority). Turkish troops are on alert and carrying out forays into northern Iraq. Republicans fear that public discontent will lead to further losses in Congress and the Democratic capture of the White House in November.

Iraq is not the only "hybrid" conflict in the region. Lebanon's elected government has collapsed after months of assault from Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah. If Palestine existed, it would be a failed state, with Hamas and Fatah engaged in daily internecine war. Egypt's aging President Hosni Mubarak clings to power, harboring hopes for a succession by his son Gamal, while the radical Muslim Brotherhood claims the loyalty of many and possibly most Egyptians. Jordan's King Abdullah looks increasingly vulnerable as a massive influx of Iraqi refugees exacerbates longstanding social divisions. Afghanistan more and more resembles Iraq as a weak central government battles the Taliban and others schooled in the streets of Baghdad.

Iran, snubbing the U.N. Security Council, presses ahead with its nuclear program. Israel is reported to be readying a preventive attack. Rumors abound that the U.S. president and his senior national-security team are divided, with some pushing to join the Israelis (using stealth aircraft and cruise missiles to attack Iranian nuclear sites) and others opposed, arguing that Iran would retaliate , that several friendly governments could fall and that the price of oil would rise above $150 a barrel. The overall impression is of a Middle East spinning out of control and the United States unable to do much about it.

Is this the future? with luck, not all of this will come to pass. On the other hand, it's easy to imagine things turning out even worse. Either way, one thing is certain: the American era in the Middle East is over. More than anything else, it was the Iraq war--the enormous military, economic and diplomatic costs, the shifting internal balances in the region--that brought it to an end. Other factors contributed: the demise of the "peace process," the rise of Hamas and Hizbullah, the Israeli embrace of unilateralism and the disinclination of George W. Bush and his administration to undertake active diplomacy. The failure of traditional Arab regimes to combat the appeal of radical Islam also figures here, as does globalization. It has never been easier for individuals and groups to find money and weapons, or to spread their ideas--including violent anti-Americanism. But let's be clear: the wounds America has suffered in the region are chiefly self-inflicted.

This is not the first such tectonic geopolitical shift in the region. The modern period dates back some 200 years, beginning in 1798 with a century of weak Ottoman rule. Then came the post-World War I colonial era, dominated by Britain and France, to be followed in turn by the cold-war era, marked by the decline of war-drained Europe, the rise of Arab nationalism and the emergence of two superpowers. The demise of the Soviet Union brought about the American era.

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